Coalition on Homelessness et al v. San Francisco: City Balks on Settlement Offer

The Coalition on Homelessness offered to settle its lawsuit against San Francisco for its illegal practices of sweeping unhoused people off sidewalks. The City rejected the offer.

In a Thursday letter to City Attorney David Chiu, Mayor London Breed and others, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the American Civil Liberties Union Northern California said that both sides could work together toward a shared goal of tackling the dual problems of street homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. 

“[The city attorney’s] office supports making housing affordable and getting serious about a holistic approach to addressing street homelessness,” the Lawyers’ Committee and ACLU wrote to Chiu earlier on August 10. “We believe we have a lot of common ground to work from.”

Instead, the legal battle continues.

The Coalition, along with seven individual plaintiffs, filed suit against the City last year for destruction of homeless people’s property in sweeps. A trial is scheduled next year.

But Chiu decried the offer as political theater in a statement released later Thursday. “Legal parties do not engage in settlement negotiations via the press, particularly when confidential settlement discussions are required,” he said, ironically in a news release.

The plaintiffs’ olive branch came two weeks before an August 24 hearing that will focus on a preliminary injunction a federal judge imposed on the City last year. Citing a 2018 federal court decision, Martin v. Boise, Judge Donna Ryu ruled that the CIty must refrain from dismantling encampments while there is no shelter available. According to that case, penalizing unsheltered people for camping outside is cruel and unusual punishment.

At a press conference, Zal Shroff, acting legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee, noted that the City offers only 3,000 shelter beds for a population of 7,000 unhoused people. As of publication time, just fewer than 400 single adults are on the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s recently reactivated shelter reservation waitlist.    

The Coalition, which also publishes Street Sheet, alleges that City workers have been violating the injunction, especially during an exceptionally rainy winter. It says it has evidence of workers continuing sweeps, especially with police at the scene. 

At the same time, city officials and neighborhood merchants have been turning to the court of public opinion through local media, charging unhoused San Franciscans on the streets—and by extension, the Coalition—for a host of problems ranging from a drop in retail sales to a major fire.  

Mayor Breed suggested on social media that the presence of encampments puts the safety of housed residents at risk after a fire consumed a construction site in the Hayes Valley neighborhood, though the cause of the fire is still under investigation. Without substantiating the claims, she said that the injunction has impeded the removal of tents in the area. 

Also, a recent San Francisco Chronicle story about Toro Costaño, a co-plaintiff living in a tent on a Castro District sidewalk, quoted Savio D’Souza, a UPS store owner in the neighborhood: “I don’t blame the City. I blame the person. I blame the homeless coalition. They are the ones making things worse.” District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman also censured the Coalition and Costaño for Costaño’s continued existence in public space. But without sufficient information about available services, Costaño told the Chronicle, he’s been unable to move off the street.

Meanwhile, with an ABC7 News crew filming, D’Souza staged a protest with other merchants outside that same encampment where Costaño lives. 

At the August 10 press conference, the Coalition offered alternatives to a police-centered approach on homelessness. Among the suggestions was that the City deploy outreach workers instead of police officers. 

It also recommended that when sweeps are unavoidable that City workers follow its own “bag and tag” protocols instead of throwing away camp residents’ survival gear and other possessions.

On the housing front, the Coalition asked the City to refurbish over 800 vacant permanent supportive housing units and use Proposition C funds to increase the number of housing units, subsidies and shelter beds, as well as expanding homelessness prevention efforts and treatment.